Pro-Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC.
(January 6, 2021 at the US Capitol)

Today we find ourselves living in a world where more and more people are turning away from democracy and supporting governments which have authoritarian tendencies or promote outright autocracy.  For historian, Anne Applebaum this movement has been somewhat personal as she opens her latest book, THE TWILIGHT OF DEMOCRACY: THE SEDUCTIVE LURE OF AUTHORITARIANISM by describing a New Year’s Eve party she and her husband Radek Sikorski, who at the time was deputy foreign minister in a center-right Polish government threw to usher in the year 2000.  Most of the participants were Polish friends, journalists, and civil servants.  The majority of the guests were conservatives and anti-communists, and most were optimistic about the future.  Fast forward twenty years, Applebaum is no longer friends with most of these individuals and she does her best to avoid them as many of her former guests seemed to have joined forces with demagogues and authoritarian leaning types.  Applebaum, in a mixture of historical trends and her own biography tries to explain why as she investigates the struggle between democracy and dictatorship zeroing in on trends in Hungary and Poland, which for her and her family is a partial home.  Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of a series of books dealing with the Soviet Union; RED FAMINE: STALIN’S WAR ON UKRAINE, IRON CURTAIN: THE CRUSHING OF EASTERN EUROPE, 1944-1956, and GULAG: A HISTORY provides important insights as to why liberal democracy seems to be under siege, and how authoritarianism is on the rise.

Since 1989 the evolution toward democracy from the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe seems to have stalled as rightist authoritarian leaning governments have come to power, particularly in Poland and Hungary.  Once they assume control these governments manipulate the levers of power to consolidate their reign relying on lies, dismissal from government positions, conspiracy theories, and inculcating the masses with a xenophobic and victim oriented messages.  According to the author there is no single explanation as to why this has occurred and she states upfront that she has no “grand theory or universal solution” to offer, but she is correct in stating that “given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy.  Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all our societies eventually will.”  For Americans this seemed implausible until the events of the last four years and many believe that the election of 2020 points to Trumpism as an aberration, however the storming of the capitol on January 6, 2021, and recent votes in the US Congress seem to make this fear even more of a reality for the future.

two middle aged man wearing suit and shaking hands
(President Trump and President Viktor Orban of Hungary in May, 2019)

Applebaum argues that the key to a construction of an autocracy is the demagogue and what attracts people to that type of individual.  This movement is not limited to a particular position on a political continuum as it is present on the left and the right, but at present it appears it leans toward right wing extremists who have achieved power in western democracies.  This “new right is more Bolshevik than Burkean: these are men and women who want to overthrow, bypass or undermine existing institutions, to destroy what exists.”  They are diverse groups with a number of agendas, but all “seek to redefine their nations, to rewrite social contracts, and, sometimes to alter the rules of democracy so that they never lose power.”

 According to Applebaum resentment, revenge, and envy, not radical loneliness drives these individuals.  A case in point is the Law and Justice party in Poland which has taken control and purged the Polish media resulting in an increase in political violence through the manipulation of reality.  The government and its supporters have constructed a new world view that employs modern marketing techniques and social media campaigns using lies and an alternative reality which increases political polarization and inflames people’s sense of right and wrong as they absorb what Applebaum refers to as “medium sized lies” and conspiracy theories put out by political leadership.  In Hungary, the lies center around the “superhuman” power of liberal billionaire George Soros who is blamed for importing thousands of Muslim migrants to Hungary to destroy the country.  In Poland, the lies rest in part on the Smolensk conspiracy that refers to the death of the Polish president Lech Kaczynski and senior military leader in a 2010 plane crash.  In both countries the younger generation no longer remembered Communism, so  new reasons are created to distrust politicians, businesspeople, and intellectuals who supported liberal ideas.  This alternate reality explains away complex phenomena and provides its supporters with “privileged access to the truth,” and power for those who have constructed the new world view.

What is ironic according Applebaum is that the language of the European radical right – the demand for revolution against elites; the dreams of cleansing of violence and an apocalyptic cultural clash is eerily similar to the language once used by the European radical left.  It can be seen in Poland, Hungary, Venezuela, and certainly is on the rise in the oldest and most secure democracies in the world.

Poland's president Andrzej Duda delivers a statement refusing to sign the bill stripping the rank of members of the communist military council, that imposed martial law in Warsaw, Poland, March 30, 2018. Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski/ via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. POLAND OUT.

(Poland’s President Andrzej Duda announces refusal to sign bill targetting members of the communist-era military council © Reuters)

In perhaps her best chapter “The Future of Nostalgia” Applebaum does a nice job summarizing how “restorative nostalgic conservatives fought for Brexit (in the United Kingdom).  The desire for chao, the realization they underestimated the cost of the extraction from the European Union, and the numerous lies to gain public support are carefully laid out.”  It is ironic how the Tories even allied with Poland’s Law and Justice party in the European Parliament as they argued against censuring Orban’s actions in Hungary.  Applebaum’s deep dive into Brexit, along with her discussion of Boris Johnson who she was quite familiar with reflect movements that are similar to the United States and show how politicians in both countries seem to have either lost control of their supporters or have not thought out the implications of their actions.

Another major strength of Applebaum’s narrative and analysis is her command of American and European history.  It is on full display in her discussion of historical events and movements in Poland, Hungary, and Russia and how they have set the foundation for autocracy in those countries.  Her analysis of the Dreyfus Affair in 1894 in France and its comparison to the fissures in the current American body politic is both thoughtful and accurate.  The split in French society between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards seems to mirror what is currently occurring in the United States as friendships are ruined and society has been reorganizing itself over the last two decades.  Applebaum describes another dinner party, as opposed to the earlier gathering in Poland, this time at at David Brock’s Georgetown home in 1993 whose guests included the likes of David Brooks, Robert Kimball, Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz, Dinesh D’Souza, David Frum, among others.  In 1993 these individuals seem to have an ideological community of fate, but over the next twenty years they have split, each going their own way and some refuse to even talk to each other.

This bifurcation is epitomized by Applebaum’s discussion of Laura Ingraham’s ideological evolution from a Reaganite to a Trumper over a similar period of time.  The views she espouses on Fox News each evening contributed to the exacerbation of tensions in American society and led to the events of July 6, 2021 . Ingraham’s despair revolves around an America that is a “dark, nightmarish place where God speaks to only a tiny number of people; where idealism is dead; where civil war and violence are approaching; where democratically elected politicians are no better than foreign dictators and mass murderers; where the ‘elite’ is wallowing in decadence, disarray and death.”  For Ingraham and her ilk America has rejected old values and universities teach people to hate their country.  The result is that “any price should be paid, any crime should be forgiven, any outrage should be ignored if that is what it takes to get the real America, the old America back.”  Donald Trump has mastered this undercurrent and has  become the epitome of the rhetoric of the restorative nostalgia by railing against the establishment and moral decline.  If everyone is corrupt, we have a moral equivalence, so it is acceptable to support a corrupt president. The real reality is the “deep state bureaucrats who manipulate voters.

Laura Ingraham
(Fox News Commnetator Laura Ingraham)

As Bill Keller writes in the July 19, 2020 edition of the New York Times, “Applebaum believes the usual explanations for how authoritarians come to power — economic distress, fear of terrorism, the pressures of immigration — while important, do not fully explain the clercs. After all, when Poland, where she begins her investigation, brought the right-wing nativists of the Law and Justice Party to power in 2015, the country was prosperous, was not a migrant destination, faced no terrorist threat. ‘Something else is going on right now, something that is affecting very different democracies, with very different economics and very different demographics, all over the world,’ she writes.”  Keller goes on to write that “a recurring problem in this book is that most of the clercs* refuse to talk to Applebaum, leaving her dependent on the public record and the wisdom of mutual acquaintances. But she makes the best of what she’s got. She is most sure-footed when appraising intellectuals who have lived in, and escaped, the Soviet orbit. From Poland, she moves on to Hungary, then to Britain and finally to Trump’s United States, with detours to Spain and Greece, in pursuit of the fallen intellectuals.

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(Author, Anne Applebaum)

She identifies layers of disenchantment: nostalgia for the moral purpose of the Cold War, disappointment with meritocracy, the appeal of conspiracy theories (often involving George Soros, the Hungarian-American and, not incidentally, Jewish billionaire). She adds that part of the answer lies in the ‘cantankerous nature of modern discourse itself,’ the mixed blessing of the internet, which has deprived us of a shared narrative and diminished the responsible media elite that used to filter out conspiracy theories and temper partisan passions. This is hardly an original complaint, but no less true for that.”

Pundits across the cable news world have relied upon Applebaum throughout the political changes evolving since the election of 2016 in the United States.  Her commentary as well as her writing is clear, concise, and presents an element of her personal experience.  A problem that emerges that may have thrown off any optimism she may have considered is that of COVID-19.  Autocrats have used the pandemic for their own purposes be it Hungary, Poland, or the United States which makes the future extremely unclear, but the perspective Applebaum brings is food for thought and quite scary how people can be manipulated by the needs of autocrats and there is no clear ending as to which way the world body politic may evolve.

*all those who speak in the world in a transcendental manner.

Rioters stormed Capitol Hill on Wednesday as Congress met to ratify the Electoral College vote declaring Joe Biden as the next president.
(January 6. 2021 at the US Capitol)


I remember years ago when I saw David Lean’s film “Dr. Zhivago,” leaving the theater with the name Lara rebounding in my psyche.  This led me to read the novel that just floored me.  Now so many years later I have read Peter Finn and Petra Couvee’s monograph THE ZHIVAGO AFFAIR: THE KREMLIN, THE CIA, AND THE BATTLE OVER A FORBIDDEN BOOK that choreographs Boris Pasternak’s journey from poetry to fiction, the Kremlin’s attempt to prevent its dissemination within and outside the Soviet Union, and the role of the CIA in trying to weaponize the novel as a vehicle in the Cold War.  The book itself appears professionally researched but there are a number of gaps, i.e., Pasternak’s experience during World War II is covered in a page or two, among others.  Overall, the book is well conceived, but I believe the authors could have done more with the topic.

The authors have written a segmented narrative which begins with a biographical profile of Pasternak including his professional relationships, marriages, affairs, which were many, and his poetic development.  They then move on to the evolution of Pasternak’s work from his poetry to his life’s work, DR. ZHIVAGO, a novel that he himself argued brought personal closure and satisfaction.  The authors offer an important dissection of the intellectual community under Joseph Stalin focusing on the purges and show trials of the 1930s which produced 24,138,799 books that were deemed “political damaging…and of no value to the Soviet reader” by the state censor resulting that these works were turned into pulp. World War II appears as an afterthought, but to their credit Finn and Couvee dissect the relationship between Stalin and Pasternak and explain why the novelist was able to survive while over 1500 of his compatriots perished.  They concluded it was because of his international status but more so by “Stalin’s interested observation of the poet’s unique and sometimes eccentric talent.”  Pasternak himself could never figure out why he survived.

(Olga Ivinskaya and Boris Pasternak)

An interesting aspect of the narrative revolves around the completion of the novel and its publication in the west.  Relying on communications between Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a young Milanese publisher, and Pasternak; Feltrinelli and Soviet officials; the Kremlin and Pasternak; internal Kremlin debate, and other western sources the reader is presented with a reasonably clear picture as to how the book was published.  What emerges is a nasty campaign waged by the Kremlin to deny publication in the west despite the “cultural thaw” that evolved after the death of Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization  speech of February 20, 1956 (though the book states it was February 25th).

Another component of the narrative centers on the role of the CIA in publishing the novel and distributing it throughout Europe and the Soviet Union.  Finn and Couvee describe how the CIA was engaged in relentless global political warfare with the Kremlin throughout the 1950s.  To counter Soviet propaganda, and challenge Soviet influence the CIA believed in the power of ideas – news, art, music, and literature that could slowly erode the authority of the Soviet state and its influence in its Eastern European satellites.  The authors trace surreptitious CIA activity focusing on the dissemination of western materials to the Russian people through Radio Free Europe; the American Committee for Liberation; the Free Europe Committee and others.  The CIA purchased books and rights from numerous publishers and did its best to make them available throughout the Soviet bloc.  In 1956 it would create its own publishing company, the Bedford Publishing Company to translate Western literary works and publish them in Russian.  Further it became involved in obtaining an original of Pasternak’s manuscript, making it available inside Russia through the Brussel’s World’s Fair in 1958.  It is a fascinating story in that the novel would be distributed by the Vatican exhibit to 500 Russian visitors who would transport it home.  The program had the full support of the Eisenhower White House and by 1970 the Bedford Company would distribute over one million books to Russian readers.

TIME Magazine Cover: Boris Pasternak -- Dec. 15, 1958

Finn and Couvee correctly point out that Soviet authorities created their own “monster” because if they had allowed the novels publication inside the Soviet Union it would have probably attracted a small literary audience, but by pursuing a strategy of repression it fostered worldwide surreptitious distribution creating a massive readership.  The Kremlin’s pressure on Pasternak almost drove him to suicide as they even went as far as to deprive him of his Nobel Prize which was awarded more for his poetry than DR. ZHIVAGO.  After accepting the prize Pasternak was subjected to a coordinated attack by newspapers, magazines, and radio, a loss of friends and colleagues, overt surveillance by the KGB, resulting in his decision to decline the award.  The Soviet literary tradition was clear, literature could either serve the revolution or the perceived enemies of the state.  One of the authors best descriptions of literature under Stalin was “formulaic drek,” which in Yiddish means “shit.”

The authors do a wonderful job discussing the numerous characters that impacted Pasternak’s life.  Relationships with his lover Olga Ivinskaya, discussions with Stalin himself and other Soviet officials, the work of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the Dulles Brothers, and numerous others read like its own novel.  The authors take a story that has many moveable parts and turned into somewhat of an intellectual thriller which is hard for us to relate to under our system of government where it seems everything whether true or not can be published on social media.  If there is a tragic character it is Ivinskaya, who was harassed, tried, and imprisoned after Pasternak’s death. If the authorities failed to get Pasternak, they sought revenge against his lover who they accused of currency fraud and being the real author of DR. ZHIVAGO.  In the end DR. ZHIVAGO was not a great piece of literature and perhaps the authors should have spent more time evaluating the literary value of the novel as opposed to its propaganda value.

Boris Pasternak
(Boris Pasternak)


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(President John F. Kennedy and Arthur M. Schlesinger)

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary a “gadfly” is a person who stimulates or annoys other people especially by persistent criticism.”  According to Richard Aldous, in his new biography, SCHLESINGER: THE IMPERIAL HISTORIAN, the definition fits Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s role as Special Assistant to the President during the Kennedy administration.  Aldous’ work is the first full-length biography of Schlesinger and he successfully grapples with a number of questions as his narrative unfolds.  First, was Schlesinger a great and important historian, a model of how academics and public service can mix?  Second,  was he a popularizer and court historian held captive to the establishment that nurtured his career?  After reading Aldous’ monograph there is no conclusive answer and elements of each question make up Schlesinger’s academic career at Harvard, as well as a speech writer and advisor to President Kennedy.  However, Aldous ably balances his subject’s talent as a writer of historical monographs and speeches with a clear acknowledgement of his shortcomings as a political analyst and aide.

My interest in Schlesinger dates back to a debate between Schlesinger and William F. Buckley, the editor of the National Review and the preeminent voice of conservatism during his lifetime.  I was a college senior and witnessed their give and take as I watched how Buckley goaded Schlesinger as the spokesperson for a liberal internationalist foreign policy as well as social engineering.  My memory points to an academic who had difficulty keeping up with Buckley and the scenes described by Aldous in the book provides further evidence as to how Buckley would get under Schlesinger’s skin.

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(Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr.)

Aldous’ work describes a young man who was guided by his father, Arthur M. Schlesinger, a Harvard professor and distinguished historian.  Along with his father, Harvard connections would guide Schlesinger through the world of academia as well as other aspects of his life, for example, his work with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) at the end of the war.  When Schlesinger felt uncomfortable in a position, his Harvard connections and relationships would ease him into a more favorable position.  Aldous explores the evolution of Schlesinger’s intellectual and ideological development very carefully honing in on the influence of his father, his attachment to Adlai Stevenson who twice ran unsuccessfully for president, a diverse group of Harvard academics like John Kenneth Galbraith and others, and the lessons learned as he tried to navigate his role in the Kennedy administration where he was seen as part of the liberal establishment in what was really a conservative leaning presidency.

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(Kennedy speech writer, Theodore Sorenson)

From the outset we see the young Schlesinger using his father as a role model.  Once he made the decision to attend Harvard and use “Jr.” as part of his legal name he was inevitably seem as “the sorcerer’s apprentice” in relation to his father.  Schlesinger would achieve early academic success with the publication of ORESTES BROWNSON: A PILGRIMS PROGRESS a book about  a convert who attempted unsuccessfully to liberalize and Americanize the Catholic Church. But the work that placed him on the academic ladder was his AGE OF JACKSON published in 1945 which moved away from Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” by emphasizing the national character of the western frontier that included urban workers, small farmers, and intellectuals in the Northeast.  Schlesinger would present Jacksonianism as a forerunner of the Progressive Era and the New Deal in attempting to restrain the power of the business community.

Image result for photos of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s family

Aldous’ work is in part an intellectual history as he follows the thesis of a number of important historians who came to the fore in the 1930s who impacted Schlesinger’s work.  At the end of World War II, Schlesinger’s academic bonafede’s would be enhanced with the completion of his seminal work THE VITAL CENTER which defends liberal democracy and a state-regulated market economy against the totalitarianism of communism and fascism.   As Schlesinger has written, “it is the very process of democracy itself, not perfect ends, which forms the bulwark against totalitarianism.”  The book that Schlesinger is most noted for is his chronicle of the Kennedy administration, A THOUSAND DAYS which earned him the nickname as the “court historian” for the abbreviated presidency.  As Aldous points out the book was to be a “legacy project” for Jacqueline Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and the book that resulted, completed a year after the assassination, “endures as a masterly portrait of a man that its author believed had been the perfect leader for a nation in the nuclear age and the zenith of its prosperity and global sway.”*

Aldous has prepared a thoroughly researched work with many insights into Schlesinger’s personal life, academic career, and public role. He introduces numerous stories and individuals that enhance the narrative. His competition with Theodore Sorenson during the Kennedy administration is a case in point as the two men vied for the primary role as the president’s speech writer.  Sorenson emerges as somewhat of a control freak who resented Schlesinger and did his best to make him as irrelevant as possible.  Another prominent individual that Schlesinger held in low opinion was Secretary of State Dean Rusk who he viewed as weak, lacking a backbone in debating issues and formulating policy. The publication of the first three volumes of the AGE OF ROOSEVELT which was supposed to run five volumes is a turning point for Schlesinger as he crystalized the war between liberalism and business-dominated conservatism, and ultimately the collapse of faith in business led to the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Aldous effectively dissects the published three volumes which were all published by 1957.

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During that time Schlesinger worked to elect Adlai Stevenson as president as one of his major speech writers and advisors.  The relationship between the two men occupies a great deal of the narrative as the Kennedy people eventually saw Stevenson as weak and too liberal.  In fact, Aldous points out that Schlesinger was tasked to control Stevenson’s high moral tone during the Cuban Missile Crisis and make sure he was strong enough against the Soviet Union in the United Nations Security Council.  Schlesinger’s main problem in the Kennedy administration was his links to Stevenson’s presidential runs and the fact that conservatives within the administration saw him as a liberal in the mold of the eastern establishment.  Despite this, Schlesinger developed a good personal and working relationship with Kennedy even though he believed there were too many conservatives and Republicans in the administration.  He did have a great deal of access to Kennedy as the president enjoyed their discussions of history and ideas and wanted to be remembered as a great president and therefore, he thought it was wise to have in attendance a great historian as he saw Schlesinger as having a keen mind who drew parallels between events of the day and past historical events and figures.

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During the Kennedy administration Schlesinger fulfilled his role as a gadfly.  As a Special Assistant to the President he had no specific role and tended to delve into areas of interest as well as those assigned to him.  His views on the planning and outcome of the Bay of Pigs fiasco were dead on and Kennedy would ask him to analyze how the CIA and decision-making in general could be reformed or improved.  During the Berlin Crisis he advocated giving Khrushchev an out as not to humiliate him and possibly cause a war. He was involved in the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty debate but was kept to the side except for his role as “keeper of the UN Ambassador” during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Schlesinger had limited interest in Southeast Asia and opted out on the issue of Vietnam which are an indication of the limitations of his role as special advisor without any particular portfolio.  If there is a weakness in Aldous coverage is his short shrift in discussing the burgeoning Civil Rights movement and the legislation that emanated from the Kennedy administration and other domestic issues that Schlesinger prepared speeches for.  But overall, Schlesinger’s role in the administration was impactful and somewhat influential, despite the fact it took him a long time to learn how to navigate the positives and pitfalls of a public career.

It is unfortunate that Aldous rushes through Schlesinger’s last four decades, devoting little space to works such as THE IMPERIAL PRESIDENCY, CYCLES IN AMERICAN HISTORY, THE DISUNITING OF AMERICA and his biography of Robert Kennedy.  In doing so “he misses the opportunity to examine how Schlesinger’s gradual loss of intellectual influence mirrored the crisis of American liberalism itself.”*  Despite this shortcoming, Aldous has written the preeminent biography of a fascinating career.

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(Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and President John F. Kennedy)

*Michael Kazin, “A Liberal Historian’s Imprint on Mid-Century America,” New York Times, November 2, 2017.